INTERVIEW: Hen Ogledd | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the world is in a pretty perilous place right now. Even taking COVID-19 out of the equation, global catastrophes and environmental disasters are on the increase, and our part in the destruction of our planet is keenly felt.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that the new album from North East quartet Hen Ogledd is a prescient one. Free Humans is a typically diverse kaleidoscope of a record: a love letter to the earth and to each other, a collection of gleeful wonky pop and weird freakouts informed by psychedelic voyages, off-the-wall poetry and the glorious contradictions which make Hen Ogledd such an enticing prospect.

Sally Pilkington, Richard Dawson, Dawn Bothwell and Rhodri Davies came together as a quartet for 2018’s Mogic; a surprising record which took themes of artificial intelligence and ran with them in typically off-kilter ways. Free Humans, as Sally explains, is rooted in love. “I feel like we have a lot of love in Hen Ogledd. I’ve found it really overwhelming playing gigs, and feeling like we are giving and receiving a lot of love, and sharing some kind of mysterious understanding! I wanted to write songs that encourage love. It really feels like hate and division are on the rise.”

The natural world and the environment are frequent touchpoints on an album which attempts to offer hope amid the maelstrom. Sally expands on finding inspiration from the likes of philosopher Mary Midgley and from reading The Secret Life of Trees:It talks about how trees feel, communicate and support each other. Trees also tie into the theme of time, as they often outlive humans by hundreds of years and have a kind of wisdom in their years, with humans waltzing in and out in a short lifetime, pillaging and generally making a hash of things!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about different perspectives of time, and also about the surfaces of other planets.” Says a typically deep-thinking Richard Dawson, who also claims to be “bewildered” by dark historical fantasy trilogy The Vorrh by B. Catling. “That was floating round my consciousness quite a lot during the making of the album. It asks some very interesting questions about…saving the world?!”

While Rhodri looked into the history of the vocoder for album track Remains, and Dawn “floated the idea of sewers for a while”, much of the lyrical content of Free Humans came to the group while recording. “It’s different for every song,” says Richard on the recording process, “from one coming to the table totally fully formed to another appearing just as a framework, or maybe some other song came half-formed and lumpy.”

I wanted to write songs that encourage love. It really feels like hate and division are on the rise

A lot of it is about timing. Trying to gauge how much should be done at home and how much to leave to the moment of recording in the studio.” Rhodri says. “A bit like not blowing all your musical ideas and energies in the soundcheck and keeping the freshness for the concert.”

Engineered by Sam Grant at Blank Studios in Newcastle (Sally: “We got a bit carried away…three days, 18 songs! We have a few spare songs that might turn up further down the line”), Sally explains that a lot of the vocals came together spontaneously, including the group singing on the aforementioned vocoder-inspired Remains, while Dawn’s terrifying vocals and chanting on Paul Is 9ft Tall (Marsh Gas) are a phenomenon in themselves. “The song started as a drum machine and synth loop, the vocal effects started on the chorus because I played it to Richard and Sally through a bluetooth speaker which made a weird spacey delay – we set this up again in the studio to record it, and we decided to put extra effects on in the verse with me snarling the words.” Explains Dawn.It’s a love song. About feeling high with love and someone else seeming ridiculously tall because you see them like that. A kind of high where you fill up with helium and float above the world and into space, terrified and with a big balloon head you begin singing.”

Much of the album offers a form of cinematic catharsis. “I think it offers solace in that it delves into depths of our human depravity and beastliness but also shines a bright light of hope. Change is possible!” Says Sally. “I think the album has a sense of collective power – people with like minds coming together to turn things around.” Going on to explain that “all songs are a bit of a surprise”, Rhodri concurs. “I don’t think we set out to make music that has a style. If anything we are trying to disrupt standard ways of doing things, like typical or conventional approaches to song form, and set off from new perspectives.”

Hen Ogledd release Free Humans during possibly the weirdest time anyone of our generation will experience. “It’s the right time for this record. And this is the right record for the times!” Richard succinctly confirms. “I think parts of the album take on a different meaning and significance now.” Sally agrees. “I started to feel like Time Party could be an end of lockdown disco party anthem, but now the whole idea of the end of lockdown is all a bit hazy.”

Ultimately, the success of Free Humans is down to the foursome’s ability to make occasionally bewildering – but always beguiling – music together, rooted in friendship and mutual respect. “I get quite emotional when listening to the others in the band coming strongly to the fore in a song. Dawn’s shit scary voice on Paul Is 9 Foot Tall (Marsh Gas), Sally inviting us to ‘find our animals’ on Skinny Dippers, Richard singing on Farewell and Sally’s amazing organ interludes…” Rhodri explains, and Dawn concludes: “Hearing your friends so alive through music is such a delight.”

Hen Ogledd release Free Humans via Weird World on 25th September


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